“Faultless, risk-free – that’s boring”

This chess world championship was something like a political summit. Every solution was fought over and over, and in the end there was only one compromise again. Twelve times this happened in the last three weeks. Norway”s magnus carlsen and america”s fabiano caruana agreed on a draw twelve times. Carlsen forced a result only in a kind of post-trial: the 28-year-old remains the world champion after three victories in a rapid chess round. Thomas steinhauser has followed almost all the games in london. The 39-year-old has been playing chess for the SC prichsenstadt club since 1998, but has been interested in the game for a much longer time. Let”s talk to him about one of the most unusual chess championships of the modern era.

Question: twelve draws in the classic games, the decision only in the tie-break: have you ever experienced a world championship like this??

Thomas steinhauser: no, there has never been anything like this before.

Had you expected a clearer course of events?

Steinhauser: I have already feared so.

He wondered why?

Steinhauser: because carlsen has already played so powerlessly in recent years. He makes no mistakes, even caruana makes hardly any mistakes. But there’s no one who can handle the rough surprise. Therefore, such a course of events has emerged. Carlsen was once asked which chess player in history he admired . . .

. . . Whereupon he said: "myself, three, four years ago" . . .

Steinhauser: yes, at that time he won seven out of ten games – that is of course sensational at the highest level. But in the end, there were maybe one or two victories out of ten games.

Is this due to a certain saturation of the world champion? Missing that last bite?

Steinhauser: certainly. You can’t stay at the top of the world without a certain basic ambition. On the other hand, the opponent was also very good.

Did you know right away on monday after the twelfth game what had happened?? Some were perplexed at first after caruana had shaken hands with carlsen. You thought: okay, the challenger has given up.

Steinhauser: no, it was clear to me that they had agreed on a draw.

Were you not surprised by carlsen?? It seemed to be his time: his jumper had been able to put caruana’s king under pressure at any time. Caruana’s jumpers were offside, his runners were ineffective, his rooks did not harmonize. And he had hardly any time to think about it.

Steinhauser: yes, if it had been that easy.

It was not?

Steinhauser: then carlsen had surely finished the game. In this situation, as an observer, you rely on the computer, which came to the conclusion that carlsen was 0.5 pawns better. Well, that’s a slight advantage, but still in the realm of a draw. These small differences are technically very difficult to exploit.

They did not say that the world champion offered the challenger a draw in a much better position and without need?

Steinhauser: it was a slightly better position, but certainly nothing elementary.

Some experts wondered: since when has carlsen been giving out gifts?? 48 hours earlier he had rushed his opponent through a hardly winnable pawn endgame.

Steinhauser: well, many saw carlsen at an advantage. I also looked at the position. It didn’t look that easy, otherwise he wouldn’t have offered a draw. He wants to remain world champion.

Couldn’t that have been carlsen’s calculation, because he knew he would mercilessly drive caruana in front of him in rapid chess??

Steinhauser: possible. It is always a risk assessment. A world championship is no different from our city championship. If two opponents are equal on points, it comes to a blitz decision – and everyone knows who is the better blitzer.

In blitz games each player has five minutes to think about the game, much less than the 25 minutes in rapid chess encounters.

Steinhauser: yes, it is within this range.

Is rapid chess like penalty shooting in fubball, where a lot depends on chance and luck, or is there more to it??

Steinhauser: you can make a rough comparison. Intuition plays an even bigger role in this case than in the classical games. Caruana is a nuchtern calculator who sits down and calculates the game. But you can’t do that in such a limited period of time. This shows the natural talent that a player has. In normal games you can work out chess by thinking intensively. In rapid or blitz chess you need talent and experience.

"I don’t see any guys who are willing to take a knock today." Thomas steinhauser on the current generation of players

Doesn’t the true genius show itself in such a situation??

Steinhauser: (thinks long and hard) I wouldn’t see it that way. Chess is a game in which one should remain error-free. That is the demand and the goal, but in a relatively short time it is hardly possible. And that’s why blitz chess is – some say: a bit of a gamble. The long games are the real, classical chess. There it goes in the deep.

This world championship is divided into two parts, which allow two conclusions. One could say that carlsen got away with the scare. Or: he demonstrated all his power and superiority in rapid chess. Which view do you tend to?

Steinhauser: I followed the decision on the internet, and it was clear that caruana was under pressure after his first defeat. I did not expect that he would lose so clearly. Caruana is not blind either.

Nevertheless, it was not long ago that carlsen was still surrounded by the aura of the executor. "He squeezes out stones when he hopes for a drop", was read about him. A carlsen does not push a draw. Now he seems tired.

Steinhauser: perhaps he lacks some strength. On the other hand, of course, he is chased by everyone. The others could tune into his game and analyze him. They are not that far away from the playing strength. He had positions in the past where it was clear: nothing is possible anymore. But carlsen discovered another subtlety and set a trap that his opponents fell into. Now it won’t happen to them so easily.

Never has a chess world championship gone as smoothly as this one. No risk, not a hint of spectacle . . .

Steinhauser: the spectacle has become less, yes.

In the past, people used to play on the roof of the world trade center, they liked to fight political proxy wars. Today, two pragmatic representatives of their sport meet behind a pane of glass – with no contact to the outside world. Is this jerk the chance that the core of the game comes back into focus – or does chess need this eventization to get attention??

Steinhauser: i talked to a friend these days who said: that was a great world championship at a high level and without mistakes. I see it differently. For me it is boring. The playing style of the world’s top young players is gradually approaching the computer without ever reaching the computer. This is technocratic chess; a flawless, risk-free style of play, with which the opponents ultimately neutralize each other.

Will the chess sport lose its charisma??

Steinhauser: yes, you could say that.

Caruana was also quite pale as a figure.

Steinhauser: yes, he is certainly not the rock star among the chess players.

Do you have to be so well-adjusted and well-polished today in order not to cause a stir in society??

Steinhauser: it does play a role. Look at the soccer players: they give interviews that could get them into the diplomatic service. I don’t see any guys who are willing to take the heat today. The antithesis to this in chess was bobby fischer. He caused excitement, polarization, admiration and rejection. That’s what makes a character and helps to arouse emotions.

How much time do you give carlsen before he is dethroned??

Steinhauser: oh, that’s hard to say. Maybe he will make it again at the next world championship. There are a few players coming up, but there is no high flyer among them. In a few years, a german player made it to the top of the world: vincent keymer. He has already beaten two world-class people at the age of 14. A few weeks ago he defeated boris gelfand, who was already in the running for the world championship crown. For a 14 year old that is really remarkable.

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